Rats are a Terror

Content warning; Graphic descriptions, dead animals, trapping rats

I want you to understand something that I didn’t earlier this year. Rats are horrible. Rats are a menace. And rats must be dealt with very strongly the moment you find them or else you may be finding yourself unable to manage them. This was a lesson I had, unfortunately, not learned and so I tried to go half-way with removing them. First it was just the snap traps, then the dogs hunting. Then the baby rabbits disappeared. At first it was just one. Before long, 16 baby rabbits had been reduced to seven. It’s only gotten worse.

We have since learned to keep the baby rabbits outside, in the outside hutches in the upper cages they are raised from the ground, in cages the rats would struggle to reach and enter if they tried. The wire is 1/2″ hardware cloth.

Then, about a month ago, we encountered a strange sort of chicken attack. One of our hens was injured, but they seemed to be superficial head injuries. Skin-deep. We presumed that a raccoon may have grabbed her through a smallish gap. The gaps was closed, and the hen was quarantined. But she seemed to have some sort of balance problem as if she had hit her head. It was a mystery. One that we believe we’ve since solved. Or primary culprit now? The rats.

Since the rats were now A Problem (as opposed to just eating our feed occasionally), we set about cleaning the garage. We bought large metal cans to store feed, we emptied the hay under the awning and covered it with towels and a tarp, we swept and cleaned and busied ourselves with making the garage spotless. Then we moved the animals out for a day and set off bug bombs as the rats had brought fleas with them. We uncovered some spots that they were getting in and out and patched them up with concrete. We had done our jobs, the rats were suddenly excluded from most food sources, and indeed, much of the garage itself. We even set out Rat X, a rat poison that kills through expansion and dehydration that does not harm animals who then eat the dead rats. They refused to eat it.

But we should have just gone all-in the moment we saw even just one. We should have skipped the snap-traps and the dogs and the Rat X and waiting to clean the garage until it got bad. And our animals have paid the price.

Since the raccoon has been such a monster this year, we secured the chicken coop extremely well from large predators. There’s no way it could have been something large.

Two days ago we found one of our rabbits had passed away, we believe from being overweight. We have been over feeding and underbreeding our rabbits lately and they have packed on some pounds. We’ve begun to remedy this. The rabbit in question had recently been showing signs of being unhealthy. An autopsy revealed large fat deposits and some blood clots in the heart. But most disturbing was that it appeared rats had gone into her cage and gnawed at her head post-death. Now I am questioning how post-death that was as several of our adult chickens have suffered a similar fate while still very much alive.

Just like the injured chicken weeks before, these injures are all on the head, mostly on the back of it. I will spare you the pictures. We believe that rats came through and started trying to gnaw on the chicken’s heads. One hen was dead, missing large chunks of flesh from their upper body. Two were injured beyond recovery with exposed skulls and badly damaged spines, yet somehow still alive. It’s amazing that they were even alive that long, their entire heads were nothing but bloody, barely recognizable masses. Both were put down. Rooster is still with us, his head swollen to the size of a golfball, the injures not as severe as the other birds, but still badly injured. There’s no telling whether or not he’ll recover. It seems to be about 50/50 from my standpoint, as he is alert, standing with his wings tight, not panting, and not so badly wounded that I can’t even begin to treat it. No wounds on any bird other than on the head and neck.

The coop is currently well secured against large animals. It would take something the size of a dog and cause damage to the coop for something large to get in. Which means that is likely something small. Which means a rat. Probably many rats. That have just killed all the hens that were in lay and injured my favorite rooster.

They are hungry because we denied them their food sources. And they are aiming for the living animals with few other options available. This means war. And a lesson sorely learned. Rats should mean war the moment you see them.

We will now be keeping the dogs away from the back lawn. And we will be biting the bullet and using high-toxicity rat poison. Likely in bait stations, just in case. If it stops raining, we will be using liquid rat poison in a waterer as well. And we will clean out the garden, cut down the plants, concrete away their burrows, dig out their homes, and generally do all we can to remove them.

I will see that these rats die if it’s the last thing that I do.

My poor rooster.

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The Killer

Today I would like to tell you about my beloved monster, a husky named Nukka. Please note that this post contains some graphic imagery in both pictures and words, so carry on only if you are strong of stomach.

This is Nukka. And this is a story of a monster, reformed.

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Back before we lived on this property, Greg and I lived in an apartment. We’d been living together for about a year, and we had two wee little pet rabbits and one big ‘ol dog named Persy. Greg grew up with a Jack Russel as a kid that was a nightmare. It would bite him and literally eat his homework. He did not like dogs, but after a year with Big Dog he had grown quite fond of them, and we decided to get a puppy together.

There was some drama and a falling out with a very negligent veterinarian, but ultimately we ended up with Little Dog. Nukka is a 40lb AKC husky. People are surprised because she seems small for a husky, but she is breed standard. Huskies seem to have one of two personalities. Either they are graceful, serious, intelligent, devoted dogs…. Or they are absolutely nuts, mouthy, wild, neurotic, and not necessarily too bright at all. We were hoping for the first. Nukka was the second. Alas, but her love of live was infectious and we loved and love her anyhow. She was a permanent fixture of our home, from the moment we brought her home.

When we moved to this property, we acquired rabbits and then chickens in somewhat short order. And in somewhat short order Nukka devoted herself to destroying them. She would chase them through the cages and try to bite them. It was a monumental effort to keep her from killing everything in sight. Sometimes we won. Sometimes she did. For a bit, she seemed to be killing every kit that slipped it’s confines. It was a problem. I was heartbroken. How on earth could I keep animals without having her kill them? How could I keep her on a farm at all? No matter how hard you work there will always be something that slips up eventually and something will die for your negligence.

And I speak of this in casual or perhaps inoffensive terms, destroying, chase, bite, kill… But these don’t do justice to describing her shockingly brutal actions. She picks animals up and shakes them with extraordinary violence, snarling, beating them on the ground, biting them over and over again. It happens in seconds. Bones snap, skin tears, a drumming sound as the animal hits the ground while being shook as hard as she can. It’s a terrifying sight and when a rabbit is caught this way it screams. Rabbits scream, and it sounds so horrible and almost human. It’s like it cuts a hole it your soul. It’s heartrending. It’s painful. It must hurt terribly, though in reality it’s over as quickly as it starts and takes no longer than broomsticking or other methods of dispatch. Even large hens don’t stand a chance. Their hollow bones simply shatter and they fall with shocking ease as their rib cage simply collapses in her jaws. I will not shy away from this, it is a disturbing sight.

Over the years, we have kept our monster in check, with ever-increasingly tight fences, cages, leashes and ropes. We have a tie-out in our back lawn wrapped around a central tree that we can hook the dogs to in a pinch. We’ve had to use it on our monster more times than I can count because she could not be trusted to leave the animals, secure in their cages even, alone. We even purchased (though never used) an electric collar. We had to find a way to keep her from eating our animals. We were struggling. We were constantly trying to train her to leave the animals alone.

Then, a breakthrough, two years back. A chicken got out and Nukka charged. “NUKKA NO!” I shouted across the lawn in the most angry voice I could. She stopped. She looked at me. “Nukka! Come here!” I said cheerfully. She turned back to the hen… “NUKKA NO. Leave it. Come here!” This time, she turned around and came back. For the first time in her life she didn’t attack and kill my chickens. Many kisses and treats were given that day.

After that it was like something had clicked in her. To this day the rabbits are still a process, but the transformation was dramatic. Some animals are off limits. No chasing, no killing, no biting. She stops. She leaves it. She comes to me when I call.

She’s still a monster, though. The last year has been a brutal one for local animals. You see, last year we had a problem with a groundhog. Groundhogs are HUGE. They are hulking, massive creatures that you really don’t get an appreciation for until you are staring an angry one down, it’s massive front teeth chattering, both of them yellow and each one as wide as your thumb nail. A bite from those teeth could break small bones and will rend flesh as easily as any dogs. The rabbits have given me a healthy appreciation for teeth like that.

This groundhog slipped into our garage one day and we used a broom to show it the door. We like to be polite to animals who aren’t bothering us. We let the bluejays rip up our trees and pull strings for their nests, and we were happy to let the groundhog leave under the same fence it came in.

But little did we know we’d created a problem for ourselves as the groundhog began eating our garden to the ground. Heavy logs blocking gaps under the fence were insufficient to keep it out. And I watched with sorrow as my cayenne plants and corn were devoured by hungry jaws every morning.

Then, one day, the dogs went out at the same time as the groundhog. And our monster decided she had found her calling. She grabbed the groundhog and to my great distress began an epic war with even Big Dog getting angry and joining in. Together they tried valiantly (and in vain) to dispose of the hulking beast. They’re thick bodied and Nukka is not actually a big dog. No amount of biting or shaking deterred this hog. It kept coming back and the dog’s efforts to remove it got more brutal. At one point the whole chicken fence was torn down on one side as the groundhog broke through it and the dogs followed, straight through the whole flock. Chickens went flying in the air all around Nukka, the monster, the killer of chickens, yet she touched not a feather. She had had her eyes on a different prize, the groundhog pinned in the corner. Another time each dog had half of it and they were biting and pulling but it broke free. Yet another time Nukka flipped it over, dived in and tried to rip it’s stomach apart, earning some small, bleeding bite wounds for her efforts. Somehow the groundhog lived and still walked away. Despite being hurt she tried to dig under the fence to follow it. Groundhogs were now The Enemy. Nothing else mattered. When the dogs were let into the lawn to pee and play, their first order of business was scouting for the groundhog and attempting to kill it. Bathroom breaks only came after their lawn was secure.

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The groundhog ran into the back corner of the pen because it had dug a hole as an escape route. I had blocked the hole with logs and it became trapped. The dogs broke down this fence and another section to get at it.

Nukka’s rage did not stop with the groundhog, though. She also took on predators attacking the birds and simply any wild animal that dared cross our threshold. She dragged possums out from under chicken coops to drop (still very much alive, just playing dead) at my feet, and once I watched with horror from the other side of the lawn as she snuffed the life out of a stray kitten that thought my chicks looked like a snack. (The rest of the kittens got live-trapped and rehomed that month and the mother cat got fixed and returned to keep other strays away. Huge shout-out to the awesome rescue lady who helped with that when other rescuers turned me down.)

These incidents layed the groundwork for her efforts this year. And while part of me is heartbroken by the loss of life, I can’t help but be impressed by her. Her efforts have saved as many lives as they take.

This year, Nukka proved herself to be the most reformed monster of all. She’s killed more animals this year than ever before, yet just today she stood sniffing the ground for rodents while the ENTIRE flock of chickens loosed themselves from their pen not 3 feet away from her. I was terrified for them. I watched her. She saw them, she sniffed them, she knew they were there, and she just didn’t care. She wanted to find a mouse instead. I was so proud (and terrified). I called her away and she came right up to me, her tail brushing the chickens as she ran past. The chickens were put away, the fence repaired, and not a feather was harmed.

But the rest of the animals around the lawn…?

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They have not stood a chance.
My dog is a legend. Many dogs chase squirrels. Nukka catches them. Songbirds too.

And the groundhog saga? It continues as well. And the groundhogs are none too pleased about it.

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That is a groundhog, a baby one. The groundhog from last year was a mama. And she was back. My garden demolished. My peppers (once again) devoured. The dogs remembered, though. And they were angry. Both of them were enraged. I can only assume they remember being bit from last year. They killed two baby groundhogs and beat the mama groundhog up so badly that she hasn’t been back at all since. Even after the baby ones were dead they wouldn’t stop trying to rip it in half. Even Big Dog stood barking at the dead groundhog for minutes. Even after it was buried in the compost pile they did not give up trying to dig it back out to bite it some more. It took them the whole day to calm down. I have never seen them so angry.

And the tiny animals? Have you ever seen a dog throw a live vole eight feet across a lawn just for the joy of it? I have. That vole got away, I heard it squeaking still very much alive afterwards. Some of them have not been so lucky. Baby wild rabbits have also paid dearly for trying to eat our garden this year. Nothing is safe.

And lastly, Nukka has taken on another kind of monster entirely as of late. And she’s been getting better at it.

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We had 16 rabbit kits and 40lbs of wheat berries, until these monsters got to them. Now we have no wheat berries and 4 rabbit kits. We are waging a war, and our monster’s killer instincts have gone from being our greatest source of losses to our best defense against future losses.

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This one was MASSIVE!

So while Nukka is still a killer, a monster in her own right, constantly set on the violent destruction of other species, she has really found a place on the farm. I no longer question her role on the homestead. She truly is reformed, walking right past the farm animals, her brood, her wards, without a care in the world. They’re off limits and she has greater ambitions. Her face says it all. Her eyes filled with excitement, she destroys only the disease-spreaders, the garden-wreckers, the kit-eaters and the chicken killers. She does not even try to eat them. She just kills them quickly, drops them and leaves them for me to dispose of safely. It’s the hunt that she lives for, and loves. And it’s the hunter that we need right now.

She’s still a killer, she will never not be. But I love her deeply. And I couldn’t be prouder of my little monster.

Puppy Problems

Lately we’ve been pondering a third dog. We’re going to be trying to move onto a rural piece of land in the next year or two, and were considering wanting a herding dog. Even in our current situation a herding dog could be handy (for those moments when I’m alone and trying to corner that one rabbit that slipped out or trying to get the chickens out of the garden, etc.) and we want a third dog anyhow. So why not have a pet that can work with us sometimes?

But a full blown, AKC registered, purebred border collie or Aussie from herding lines whose parents regularly herd hundreds of sheep seems excessive for our small operation. So I started trying to reach out to rescues instead. Many of these herding dogs end up in pet homes that just can’t handle them, but also aren’t ideal for big farms. They’re extremely smart, active dogs that need something to do to harness their instincts. They end up chasing cars, herding cats and kids, and chewing things apart because their energy and instinctual needs are not met. We not only have an outlet for those herding instincts, but also are used to running our dogs through the wringer. Agility, hiking, dog parks, fairs and festivals, camping, swimming, two hour walks through the neighborhood… Our dogs go everywhere and do everything. On their off days they “only” run and wrestle in our back yard (which has a 6′ fence) for an hour or two and get a half hour of people play time. We can handle high energy dogs. As for training… Smart dogs? Check. Active dogs? Check. Neurotic dogs? Check. Aggression. Check. Guarding? Check. Killing the livestock? Check. We’ve tackled it all and our dogs have come out happy, healthy and well-behaved. We know how to manage problem dogs.

Rescuing seems ideal to me. We could provide a nearly perfect home for a rescue dog. But we’ve been running into snag after snag.

Most border collie rescues want fees just to apply for a dog, let alone adopt one.
One “national” Aussie rescue doesn’t even operate in our STATE.
Most rescues aren’t getting back to us, some have turned us down BECAUSE we have a farm. They see out 30+ animals not as livestock, but as “pets” that are being hoarded and bred like an animal mill.
One rescue had the balls to ask $650 for a nine week old corgi/aussie puppy. I could literally buy a quality AKC aussie with shots, hip, eye and MDR1 testing plus a great lineage for that price. No amount of “your dog comes with shots and is fixed” is worth $650. Sorry, getting a dog fixed is $100, shots are $50. Where’s that other $500 going to exactly?

I mean, it’s easy enough to just buy a dog. And we could do that. But we’d like to give a dog that needs a good home, well, a good home. We’re one of the most dog experienced homes you could get. We’re happy to pay a reasonable fee, home inspection, fill out applications, someone is home almost all day every day, we have a trainer planned, we have a fenced in lawn, blah blah blah… We know the drill, we’re OK with the drill, we’re confident in ours being a great home. I feel like our two, healthy, smart, active and well-adjusted dogs prove that. So it’s frustrating.

If these dogs need homes so bad… Why are we being turned down or asked to pay purebred dog prices?

We’re going to keep trying to rescue for a while. We’re in no hurry. But rescues pushing people to turn to breeders is going to give rescues a bad name. We’ve got a forever home open and waiting for a forever pup. How about approving us for a dog to fill it, huh?

Vaccines!

Today I thought I’d make a quick post about Mareks in chickens and my thoughts on the Mareks vaccine, when I realized that my thoughts on this subject spread over into my thoughts on vaccines in general. This is a touchy issue for some people. My information is factual, hard science. My opinions and actions are just that. Opinions and personal choices.

So first, some facts about Mareks. You can find most of this info right here in a well thought out article that I do not care to replicate… But here are some of the cliffnotes.

Mareks is a highly contagious and fatal virus with no cure and is not zoonotic or dangerous to other animals in the environment. The chicken version is contained to chickens and it’s really bad in chickens. It lives outside the chicken for a minimum of five months, and possibly years. It kills chickens in a horrible way, with paralysis, tumors, diarrhea, starvation, blindness and breathing issues. The symptoms fade in and out over months and kill very slowly. A chicken typically starts shedding the virus after 10 days post-exposure and shows symptoms after a month, and typically dies shortly thereafter. It can take up to six months before symptoms show after exposure to the disease in certain rare cases, though.

Now here’s some info about the vaccine. The Mareks vaccine works by offering the body something similar to Mareks to target and “learn” to fight it off. What is introduced into the chickens is the “turkey version” of Mareks, which has a similar makeup to the chicken version but can’t infect or be shed by chickens. It must be administered within 36 hours of hatching. The Mareks vaccine is NON STERILE, not to be confuse with terms like live/dead vaccines which is irrelevant. A non sterile vaccine means the vaccine does not prevent the virus from infecting the chicken, stop or slow the shedding of the virus nor cure the virus. It instead means that if the bird develops the virus, its immune system will be able to fight back and not develop the life-threatening symptoms that the virus creates because it already knows that it is a threat. All it stops is the symptoms, NOT the actual disease. A vaccinated bird can still be infected with Mareks. The vaccine used to be considered about 90% effective at stopping symptoms but more recent studies have shown that Mareks is mutating faster than vaccination can keep up with and that number is slowly dropping. In some places it’s now considered less than 80% effective, which is below herd immunity levels.

This last part is very similar to the way some human vaccines work and it’s one small piece of the puzzle of immunology. It’s part of why even if someone is vaccinated they could possibly still catch a disease, and it’s why even if we vaccinated the whole human population for 100 years we may never get rid of contagious diseases because all it takes is one asymptomatic person to spark a whole outbreak. The reality is, we may never show a symptom, but the disease might still be around. It’s why they still suggest vaccines for “eradicated” diseases that we’ve been vaccinating against since the beginning of vaccinations.

That being said, I am pretty firm on my stance. I believe in the power of natural immune systems. They’re incredible, they have the power to fight diseases like crazy and they are also genetic. If you never vaccinate a population of chickens you arrive at two outcomes. Either; A) The population of chickens catches Mareks, it’s super contagious and fatal and they all die; or B) The chickens keep living, either by having built a total natural immunity to the disease or by the disease having run it’s course long ago and no longer having had any prey the disease dies out. It may take a very long time indeed to reach one of these outcomes, but a little dose of selective breeding goes a long way. Animal husbandry is our own little micro eugenics program to breed bigger, faster, better, stronger and more immune chickens. We can also know when a disease is in our flock and eliminate all of the diseases “food” (in this case, chickens) so it dies out before it can spread. That’s what breeding IS. It is deciding who lives, breeds, and dies based on arbitrary traits and goals. Selective breeding IS eugenics.

If you vaccinate a population of chickens against most diseases you have to keep vaccinating them against it forever. This happens in humans sometimes too. We vaccinate against a disease, and maybe it is a sterile immunity, most human vaccines are sterile under the correct circumstances, which means that the immunity prevents the disease from infecting the body and the disease will never shed from the body even if they are exposed to it. Maybe some aren’t and that disease gets passed around asymptomatically forever. Maybe some people have weaker immune systems and what is normally a sterile vaccine is instead one that produces an asymptomatic carrier. Maybe a disease has animal carriers and is hard to eradicate from the environment, like flus. But the Mareks vaccine is NOT sterile EVER. If we vaccinate against Mareks we have to ALWAYS vaccinate against Mareks the way we ALWAYS vaccinate against tetanus. And the reality is that at best the Mareks vaccine works 90% of the time. The same thing goes for avian diseases like Newcastle, which is also carried by wild birds. We have to vaccinate forever, and still expect losses.

So here’s how I see it. I vaccinate myself and my dogs against fatal and common diseases. I don’t vaccinate my livestock unless the vaccine is a sterile vaccine.

By doing this I am guaranteed of one of two things in my birds… A strain of chickens with total immunity to Mareks or a flock that is completely free of Mareks. And what happens if my flock gets Mareks? The same thing that happens if my flock gets bird flu. The whole flock is killed in a comprehensive disease eradication program, all my equipment gets burned or torched and I do not put chickens on that land again for at least one year. Is that harsh? Very! It’s also the reality for people who are monitored for Avian Flu. And because of that, the Avian flu has not been spread across the whole nation killing half of the USAs chickens, possibly infecting and killing people, putting countless farmers out of work and sending the price of chicken meat skyrocketing. It’s about being responsible for the good of everyone.

But there is surprisingly no such program in place for Mareks, Newcastle or other severe and contagious chicken diseases. I’m committing myself to these actions willingly even though it may mean I loose everything for a year or more. I have done this for avian flu by becoming NPIP and I’m doing it for other diseases because I would like to see our birds in the USA either have a natural immunity to Mareks or I’d like to be able to proudly say that my flock is 100% clean. If my birds get sick, I cull them. Your vaccinated birds? Who knows if they carry Mareks or not? Am I going to bring home your supposedly “clean” bird, that acts totally healthy, and it’s secretly a ticking time bomb? I’m really concerned by the idea that 90% of vaccinated birds could be carrying Mareks and nobody would ever know it until my whole flock dies. The best part is that there’s no way (in a flock of all-vaccinated birds) of proving to me that your Mareks vaccinated birds DON’T have Mareks! And that is fine if the vaccine is dirt cheap and I want to vaccinate every single chick I raise out at hatch for the rest of humanity’s existence with no chance of eradicating the disease or growing birds that are immune to it and accepting that at least 10% of our birds die to this disease, and another 10% die to some other disease there’s a vaccine for, etc. But I think we can do better.

The price of such a program is steep, but the prices when it’s not followed are even steeper. There are countless people with their precious backyard flocks of PET chickens that come down with Mareks and they couldn’t imagine culling them, not even to protect the entire rest of the chicken population in the united states. This behavior was the start of a severe Newcastle outbreak in 2002 in California. Official reports state that it was a backyard flock with inadequate health management programs that was the source of the outbreak that spread to commercial flocks, other states, and cost farmers millions of dollars. People’s flocks of pet chickens were seized by government officials for destruction after a state of emergency was declared. All because one person didn’t cull unhealthy birds and report sickness in their flock. If someone moved in next door to me and got chickens, there would be nothing stopping them from putting unhealthy Mareks-laden “vaccinated” birds next to me and I’d never know it until my flock started dying. And if we worked together, agreed to BOTH remove our flocks for a year, and then get healthy birds a year later, we could eliminate Mareks in our neighborhood. Programs like this could eliminate Mareks from the USA entirely in a decade. And it’s simple; if your birds get Mareks, cull them. Follow good sterilization procedure, don’t put birds on that land again for at least a year, and we could see a massive eradication of a disease in a way that we will never see with the non-sterile vaccinations.

Unfortunately, too many people want to cling to their pet chickens. There are topics all over the internet about how to keep disease laden chickens alive, how to fight the government or other chicken facilities that are calling for your flock to be culled, and how to keep your chickens in hiding so that they can’t find your sick birds to kill your sweet little poopsy woopsies that happen to be costing all of the farmers around you lots of money and lives. The refrain of “Why should my vaccinated birds have to die just because you don’t want to vaccinate yours!?” is often heard and sometimes it gets countered with “Why should my healthy birds have to die for your sick ones!?”. People find themselves at an impasse with nobody to enforce or regulate a disease. We COULD do better, but unless there’s a national program for Mareks like the NPIP for avian flu, we can’t because there’s nothing TO enforce. So for now I will continue to cull for health and anyone who buys from me can be guaranteed that they are getting a healthy bird that is 100% Mareks free.

But I vaccinate my dogs and myself. Why? The first reason is because, like I stated earlier, most human vaccines are sterile, which means that even if I am exposed, the disease will not cause me to catch and shed the disease. That means that by vaccinating against the disease we are essentially seeking the natural solution of denying a disease its food source without killing people who get the disease. We are starving the disease out, and someday if every single person is vaccinated consistently for a time, we may actually see the diseases removed from the planet. This cannot happen with vaccines for things like Mareks, Newcastle and tetanus because of outside influences.

And yet I still tell people to get their tetanus shots. I got mine. My dogs have rabies vaccines and not just because of the law. The reason is because chickens are, in a way, disposable. They’re the goldfish of the avian world. You may love them, they may be smart, but ultimately they’re a small bundle of birds worth MAYBE $100 each if you have some extremely rare flock. Most people could find replacement hens for $15 a pop that are younger, healthier and produce more eggs. A year without chickens is not the end of the world. They live and die fast. A 6-month-old chicken is an adult. A 4-year-old hen is old. A 10-year-old hen is probably dead. Most people replace their hens within 3 years. What is one year without your hens? And further more, we raise them for food. No matter how much you love your mouse, chicken or goldfish… Ultimately the species is primarily raised to be eaten by something else.

But my dogs are not disposable. We chat together, they keep me sane, they are wildly sociable and designed by nature to attune themselves to my every request. They give me exercise and joy, they are robust and personable. I have thousands of dollars invested in each dog solely as a companion animal. I expect them to do what jobs they have (the occasional cart to be pulled, guarding my house, herding chickens, or carrying a backpack on a hike, etc) and eventually retire peacefully to my home. They are not disposable, replaceable animals. They may stay with me for 20 years, or a fifth of my whole life on this earth. They are not a $15 animal raised en masse for food that I would likely replace in three years anyhow.

And people fit the “disposable” bill even less so. So yes, I have avoided some vaccines for non-fatal conditions (flu shot is silly IMO) and gotten others for conditions that are more likely to hurt me (tetanus comes to mind, given my work). For me to endorse not getting vaccines for serious conditions for people is like telling someone to treat humans like disposable chickens. The price of seeking factual natural immunity is awfully steep to pay. The price is eugenics. And if you’re supporting nature and natural systems, you can look at chickens to see how much it would take for that to be effective. I’m willing to cull fifteen birds, or even one hundred birds, or a thousand, or a million, to keep a disease from spreading without vaccines. So unless you endorsing mass genocide for a species (which in the case of chickens, I am), you might wanna consider vaccinating. Because that’s how immunity works. Immunity is bred in, not magically obtained. So please, always use sterile vaccines, and you might want to consider non sterile vaccines as well. The one in a million chance of having an allergic reaction is probably worth not requiring genocide for the human race.

Let it snow!

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Taking pictures in this weather is hard, but the snow stopped for about two hours today and I got this shot of my birds, braving the weather, from my dining room window. There’s almost no light outside and it took some contrast editing to get it to look decent at that. This is my wheaten rooster and my blue Ameraucana hen.

We’ve been having a warm, dry winter. It’s felt more like September than December and it’s been throwing off people’s sleep cycles. Most of my friends are fairly in tune with natural cycles and the fact that our winter has been anything but is upsetting.

Now that the snow is finally here, I am celebrating! Even the chickens seem content to tolerate it as they run across the lawn, stopping to crow or peck the ground, rather than stay in their coop. The dogs go leaping around the lawn, barking and rolling in the snow. The rabbits are just as active as ever and I am cozy and warm with a cup of chamomile tea. The snow and cold is important. Parasites die, the ground water is slowly restored, plants that rely on the spring floods will bloom and the trees will conserve their energy for the explosive growth they will need in a few months. The animals hibernate and the harsh realities of the winter weed out sick and weak animals from wild herds, allowing future generations to be stronger. The thick snow protects small grass and shallow seedlings from marauding grazers and the world falls quiet for a little while. It breathes and sloughs off it’s old skin, like a snake getting ready to shed into something bright and beautiful and new.

Sure, winter is hard, but we come out all the brighter for it once it’s done. So I’m certainly glad for the calmer, quiet, renewing days of the year and I hope they stick around long enough to make the differences that they are supposed to!

Rabbit Raising Myths

I have had a really hard time in the last few years with rabbit raising myths. Having cared for rabbits for more than a decade and been homesteading with them for nearly three years (with previous breeding experience before that) I like to think I have enough experience-based evidence to debunk most of the false claims people give about raising rabbits. There are so many out there that people repeat as if they were bible passages without having spoken to real breeders who try it and it just drives me batty! So here are some rabbit myths that tend to just be nonsense.

Rabbits Will Have Heart Attacks From Loud Noises

Nukka, a vicious killer, sitting peacefully right next to a totally relaxed rabbit minutes after barking at her.

I once heard a lady say that rabbits will keel over at just about anything. Why? She took in a rescue rabbit that had been so sheltered that it’s whole life it only ever knew one human person and no other living thing. She brought it home and her large breed dog barked at it. The rabbit immediately had a heart attack and died.
This goes to show that these things CAN happen. However, they are EXTREMELY rare. Every day my dogs are let out through my garage, they charge right past the rabbit cages at top speed, barking loudly. Once in a blue moon my husky tries to chase them through the wire for a few minutes until I can catch her and scold her. No heart attacks. I use my circular saw and drill within ten feet of them and they hardly budge. They even only pull their ears back if I am using a staple gun on a cage if they happen to be inside that cage. I know a lady who plays their local rock and roll radio station quietly in her rabbit barn. My rabbits have kept on being totally normal through seven different dogs roughhousing within 3 feet of them, cats trying to steal their kits, hawks and raccoons killing my chickens, construction work, the neighbor’s dogs, screaming children… They even made it through *gasp* fireworks near by on 4th of July and new years! Needless to say these things do not phase my rabbits and they aren’t about to die of fright just because there’s some thunder in the air… And wild rabbits have to survive frequent close calls with predators.
Rabbits ARE sensitive to new things and stress easily. I have even seen some of my rabbits have popped blood vessels from having an extreme fright. But it was REALLY extreme (running from the killer husky when she slipped out of her cage) and even then she lived and was fine and proceeded to have a healthy litter two weeks later. They are certainly not about to keel over because someone set off a set of firecrackers in their driveway next door.

Grains and Veggies will kill your rabbits

Baby rabbits, 2.5 weeks old, eating pellets with cracked corn and rolled oats.

Some people claim that the slightest shift in diet will kill off all your rabbits.
Personally, I have never lost a single kit or adult rabbit to a digestive issue. Ever. In the winter I feed cracked corn as 1/5th-1/6th of their diet. I know a lot of people who do the same. In the spring, summer and fall they get everything from bell peppers, kale, dandelions, carrots (both wild and domestic), fresh grass, deadnettle, sow thistle, basil, mint, lemon balm, collards, turnip tops, beet greens, plantago, chard… The list goes on and on! Wild rabbits will happily devour most of these things out of your garden as well! And yet wild rabbits are not exactly on the endangered list from this magical “restricted” diet they are supposed to get… In fact they are one of the most invasive species in the world and will absolutely devastate crops if they are allowed to get out of hand. The key to a rabbit’s diet is two things; fiber and diversity. Many plants that are supposedly “rabbit toxic” are fine in small quantities because they’re only “kind of” toxic such as oak seedlings and broccoli. They can both cause their own type of digestive issues if eaten in large quantities. But nobody ever killed their rabbit by offering them a tiny snack of either. The trick is to not feed anything in a large quantity very suddenly. As the plants start appearing again I start feeding out a few of the reviving leaves from the wild plants I know. As the garden grows they get some small snacks from the garden as the wild plants come in full-force and become a major part of their diet. As the garden then contributes majorly to their diet as well I start allowing them out in “tractor” pens to eat whatever plants they want and feed the occasional full meal of vegetation. I know there are no truly “deadly” plants in my lawn such a poison hemlock so I don’t leave them out all day (so they don’t have only stuff that’s bad for them left to eat out of boredom) and I don’t worry about it.
The other secret is maintaining a healthy digestive system. There’s so many suggestions on this from probiotics and ACV to feeding Grandma’s Concoctions of garlic and cayenne pepper… But the first and best way to a healthy digestive is lots and lots of grass hays. Tons of low-fat, mid-protein and high fiber (especially whole long-strand fiber) feed will keep them healthy as bulls (or bucks in this case!).

Handling New Born Kits or Strange Smells Will Make Mom Eat The Litter

One of our former doe Lucy’s day old kits in my bare hands. This kit is grown and in a new home, distinctly not eaten by her mom.

This is quoted to me so often it’s nuts. Most commonly it’s quoted in reference to not handling kits until they are 2+ weeks old and not to let dogs, cats etc. around moms with litters. Poppycock I say. Once again, my dogs run past barking every day, there are hawks that attack my chickens, on butcher days my lawn smells like blood, sometimes cats and coons and other scary critters come into my lawn… My rabbits just keep on having babies and not eating them. I have had one mom actually eat a litter (Tasty) and she was promptly culled from the herd. She was a bad production doe anyhow.
Sometimes first time moms will appear to eat their kits. This is an unusual phenomena that’s known as “over cleaning”. Does clean the blood off of their kits when they are born. If they are too rough it’s quite easy for those big teeth to cut open fragile skin. This then bleeds, which the confused does begin to try to clean “off” the kit, but are really cleaning flesh and blood “out” of an open wound. The result? Half-mauled kits in the nest, clean on one end, missing on the other. Sometimes it’s all the kits, sometimes they only nibble a “little” (a foot here, or an ear there), most of the time it’s only 1-2 kits that get badly beat up. But this is a very different behavior than just eating the babies because they are threatened and usually goes away after the first litter and the outside environment (predators, loud sounds, handling the kits) has pretty much no influence on this. It either happens or not and the doe either becomes a good mom or not as all does do (or don’t), irrelevant of this happening on the first litter. First litters are often flops.
I and almost every breeder I know also handle kits within 24 hrs of birth without incident. This lets us see if the mom HAS mauled a kit by accident, if they are getting fed, how many there are, any still borns, and birthing matter left in the nest, etc. While some does have attacked ME for doing this, the does are not like “Oh! You have my kit! Better go EAT IT OUT OF YOUR HAND!”. Once I leave the cage, the does normally just check the nest, sees that the babies are fine and life goes back to normal. A doe that eats her kits over disturbances that should be normal is an abnormal rabbit with an unhealthy trait and should simply be removed from the breeding program. They would never reproduce successfully in the wild.

Feed Your Birthing Does Bacon

What? No! Why this awful rumor even exists is sometimes beyond my comprehension, but here it goes. Some people claim that the reason rabbits occasionally eat kits is because they lack something they need in their diet immediately after birth, mostly proteins, fats, iron and calcium. Because of this myth about why rabbits eat kits, some people take a chunk or two of bacon and put them in the rabbit’s cage to kind of “give the rabbit what she needs” without killing her kits.
For starters, there’s no evidence that rabbits eat their kits due to nutritional deficiencies. Accidents or stress, yes, nutritional deficiencies, no. So the reasoning here is patently false. But far worse is the idea of feeding your rabbit bacon to fix it in the first place.
Some rabbits will actually EAT the bacon. But it’s not because they need the nutrients, it’s because they are desperately trying to clean up their nest site to keep it from smelling like meat and to keep predators away.
But this can make your rabbit extremely sick, usually from GI stasis or salt shutting down their kidneys, and runs the risk of creating a prion disease in rabbits. Don’t know what that is? It’s a disease that creates improperly twisting proteins in the body and brain. It’s mostly transmitted through strict herbivores eating meat infected with the disease. Still not familiar? In sheep, it’s called scrapie, in deer is’d Chronic Wasting Disease. In bovines, it’s called mad cow disease.
For god’s sake. Do not feed your rabbits meat. If they need calcium, protein, iron, fat, etc, just feed them some clover hay and give them a mineral block. Yeesh!

Hay or Death!

Nkkahay

Nukka on top of our hay bales during our first year.

There’s this crazy idea that some people who are new to rabbits are getting that if you don’t feed your rabbits hay that they will die. This rumor comes primarily from vets and others in the pet industry. It’s one I have perpetrated myself on occasion. Pet rabbits are very different than production rabbits. They are smaller, often times spayed or neutered, with no environmental stresses on them at all. And products for these rabbits tend to be marketed to “pet” owners. Look at “Beneful” with it’s brightly colored cereal pieces, openly advertising the “whole grains” they add, or “Fancy Feast”, which implicates that your cat is royalty to be spoiled like a princess. The pet rabbit market is no different. Rabbit feed filled with sunflower and thistle seeds, dyed sugary cereal pieces and nuts covered in honey are in most “premium” rabbit feeds and sell extremely well. These feeds are extremely fatty, fattier than most “complete” rabbit feeds marketed for meat production and are much lower in fiber. Additionally, many pet owners like to further “spoil” their pets by giving them sugary treats such as yogurt drops or dried fruits, as well as making sure they have a full feeder 24/7.
When you combine the idea of these extremely fatty feeds with the idea of a “pet” rabbit, usually living in a small cage in a climate controlled environment without breeding, it’s a recipe for disaster. GI stasis, heart disease and congestive heart failure are not uncommon among pet rabbits. Pet rabbits are in a state of severe decline in health among most pet owners. So vets and others in the pet industry, in an attempt to educate people in the 10-20 minutes they have to sell them a product or talk about their pet at a checkup, tell people that if they do not feed their rabbits a diet of primarily hay (or at least feed some hay), their rabbit will get sick or die. And for a sedate, over-fed, stress-free pet rabbit, this is true. And since rabbits CAN live off of hay and minerals alone, a fortified hay based pellet or a hay based diet with a mineral lick is ideal for a pet (and can be ideal for production rabbits as well).
But this is not always true of meat rabbits. These rabbits are big, covered in lots of muscle, exposed to outside environments, and breeding. A litter puts a strain on a body. Milk production is a huge fat sink. Calories are needed to burn in cold winters. Production rabbits make use of the extra calories they consume, and production feeds are not as fatty as the sugar-loaded “pet” rabbit feeds, focusing instead on protein. A rabbit can, and many millions do, live well on pellets alone.
Haying is a personal choice that has more to do with moving towards personal food security, offering a more natural diet, stability of the GI tract in a variety-based diet, offering quality of life based environments, etc. A rabbit can live happily on pellets, and happily on hay, but neither is a death sentence when balanced correctly.

If You Eat Only Rabbit You Will Die

Rabbit starvation is a real thing. It’s also sometimes call mal de caribou and if you are ever out in the wilds keep it in mind. If you ever eat so much protein with no carbs and fats to balance it out, the protein can build up in your system and overload your body systems and you can die. In survival settings, especially in the winter, this can be your downfall as wild rabbit is easy to find and wild veggies are not.
But to equate this concept to a typical-world homesteading or farming situation is extremely far reaching at best.

An adult rabbit, slow-cooked with onions and herbs. We ate this with potatoes and carrots on the side. Yum!

An adult rabbit, slow-cooked with onions and herbs. We ate this with potatoes and carrots on the side. Yum!

The only way rabbit starvation works is by eating extremely lean meat with no carbs and fats for days or weeks on end as your sole food source. If you eat a salad, a carrot, a slice of bread, some potatoes, green beans, or a glass of milk with your rabbit, you will never experience this phenomena. Almost every vegetable, dairy, or grain product has plenty of fats and carbs to balance out the protein in the rabbit and make a complete diet. In fact, if you eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and rabbit for dinner, you’re pretty much set right there. Experiencing rabbit starvation is very difficult in all but the most extreme of settings and isn’t practical to reference in almost any situation.

Rabbits are Silent or Always Quiet

Rabbits are generally quiet animals. They don’t make sounds… Most of the time.

Kibbles, one of our Rex rabbits, trying to dig through a hay bale.

Kibbles, one of our Rex rabbits, trying to dig through a hay bale.

Rabbits make some really quiet, really annoying sounds on a regular basis that will bother you quite a bit if you keep them indoors, especially near your bedroom. They like to dig and will dig at anything, even solid or wire floors. They will chew cage bars, scrabble in loud circles, and best of all they will stomp their hind feet as loudly as possible. And they do most of this at night.
But most people don’t realize that rabbits also vocalize. Many rabbits make grunting noises. This is mostly a mating call. But the real sound they make is a distress call, and can only be described as a scream. It’s loud, it’s piercing, it carries through blocks and neighborhoods. And it sounds distressingly like a human baby being brutally murdered with a knife. If you ever hear the most bone-chilling high pitched shriek of pain in your life carrying across your property, it’s time to book it to your rabbit barn ASAP and see what’s up!

I hope this clears up some common misconceptions about rabbits and helps you understand your rabbit’s behavior and physiology better! Good luck and happy rabbiting!

Selecting a Rabbit Breed

Here on the homestead we only have three types of rabbits, but there are several dozen to choose from. When selecting a rabbit for your homestead, the primary goal tends to be meat, with secondary goals of fur or perhaps the occasional sale of a breeder or pet. Later show sometimes becomes another factor. That limits the options to breeds primarily grown for the commercial market, but there are still many choices.

The nice thing about rabbits is that no matter what breed you get rabbits are all made out of meat. I know someone who butchers her Netherlands dwarf rabbits for her dog’s food when she has culls! That is about as far from a production breed as you will get! But no matter what rabbit you choose you get rabbit hides and meat out of them. This is just a list of some popular breeds and their pros and cons!

New Zealand
This is our primary breed of rabbit, known for its excellent production. It is pretty regular to expect any New Zealand to give good litters with fast growth and reasonable meat to bone ratios. These are large, 10-11lb rabbits. New Zealand Whites tend to be the most common and the best developed of the colors, but they also come in red, black and broken varieties. Blue and steel are colors that are still in development but we may see on the show table in the future. This is THE all around production rabbit, is inexpensive and easy to come by.

Californians
These rabbits closely resemble New Zealands in quality. They are the number 2 production rabbit in the world and are a great choice for most people. The primary difference between this rabbit and a NZ are the color (Californians only come in white with black or sable tips) and meat to bone ratio. Californians are known for their lighter bones, but have a very slightly smaller overall size. If you were a commercial breeder the difference of a half-ounce or two per rabbit might add up but for homesteading purposes these rabbits are about the same as a New Zealand. It is very common to cross them with New Zealands to try to get some hybrid vigor out of the kits.

Rex
Rex rabbits are a primarily fur breed, but they have a good size (9lbs) and strong growth. Their fur is like no other, it is unmistakably soft and plush. It is extremely short and dense and has a texture almost like velvet. Rex furs are the most valuable and extremely diverse coming in a wide range of colors and patterns. Our own Kibbles is a Rex, and has proven to be a high production rabbit. Rex tend to be a bit smaller and slower growing than major production breeds, but are still a great choice.

Mini Rex
Mini or dwarf rabbits seem like an odd choice for a farm, but there are legitimate reasons for choosing them. They can fit in smaller spaces, can be classified as and more easily sold as pets for the homesteader trying to produce their own food in an apartment or restrictive neighborhood. Their conversion of feed to meat is the same as a full sized rabbit, they are just very small and that makes processing more time consuming. Mini rabbits often carry the dwarfing gene which is required for showing, but is bad for production. One copy creates a smaller rabbit, but any rabbit with two copies is a “peanut” and is born with fatal defects. This can reduce litter sizes, and can be avoided by getting a “false dwarf”, which is a mini without the dwarf gene as your herd sire or brood doe. Aside from this particular complication, mini Rex are exactly like standard Rex in a smaller package and are great pet animals too.

Palomino
Pals are a beautiful golden or dusty sand colored rabbit with a commercial body. They are known historically for an excellent meat to bone ratio, thriftiness, and very friendly personalities. Unfortunately this rabbit has become rare and most quality breeders no longer breed for production, but for show. There are still a few production rabbits around, however, and they can be a great meat breed. They are smaller than Rex, being around 8lbs.

Silver Fox
Another rare breed rabbit, these big rabbits are known for excellent growth, good mothering, fine temperaments and their beautiful fur that looks nearly identical to the actual animal the breed takes its name from. When purchased from a reliable source these are rabbits of extreme quality, but for many the pricetag may make them flinch as a young breeding trio may run $200 without batting an eye and can get much higher. Compared to a New Zealand, which can provide quality broodstock to most for $25 each, that is quite a chunk of change. Lower quality stock from this breed varies widely because the breed is not as well established with quality as New Zealands or Californians.

Flemish Giant
These huge rabbits are becoming more and more popular in the US, mostly for the pet market. At 15-25lbs, these rabbits are one of the biggest in the world and that leads many people to the knee jerk reaction that they must be the best for food. Contrary to that, these rabbits tend to grow their bones first and their meat later, producing less actual food for the same amount of feed. Their large size also means special care with reinforced floors, and extra large cages. However, many people simply prefer the huge size of the FG and still more find great success crossing a thrifty, light-boned meat breed like a Californian with them to produce an exceptional meat rabbit. FG rabbits tend to sport very natural coat colors with mottled tones, and are friendly animals.

Champagne D’argente
This beautiful breed of rabbit, with its beautiful light greyish coat, is another rare breed rabbit with high thriftiness and light bones. Similar to the Palomino in overall use, the rabbits sport a slightly thicker body, and a very differently colored coat, but share the smaller size and the reduced use in production.

Florida White
Originally created for laboratories, this small rabbit is similar in their use to Mini Rex. These rabbits are always white and are extremely consistent in their growth and quality due to their use in labs. These rabbits have not been bred for the pet market, and so temperament is closer to that of a farm rabbit. These rabbits grow fast, are thrifty, and can be kept in small cages.

American
This breed of rabbit does not have the classic commercial body, but is known for its great meat production despite that. Invented and popularized as a meat breed, this long, low and beautiful rabbit has retained its high production characteristics. Similar in size and growth rate to a Rex, this rare breed is a great production rabbit with a unique shape and extreme thriftiness. Its mandolin like shape leads to people passing up this breed despite its proven use for meat.

Giant Chinchilla
These rabbits suffer frequently from the same flaws that other Giant breeds do, but tend to be better overall for production. A smaller size than the extra large Flemish allows these rabbits a better meat to bone ratio and as a result are more thrifty. Reaching 5-6lbs at 8 weeks makes these rabbits extremely fast growers, very friendly, and their chinchilla colored fur is very popular. But specialized care and a still below average meat to bone ratios makes these a less popular rabbit for meat. They are also a rare breed.

French Angora
This is the only breed of angora (or wooling rabbits) suggested for meat production, although the Giant Angora shares all the characteristics of the other Giant breeds in regards to meat, with the added work of the angora coat. Angoras are, of course, a wool breed with a coat that must be brushed and maintained regularly. The French variety has a good size and a tight, commercial meat-type body. The added benefit of extremely high quality wool can be very appealing to a homesteader that does not have the space for something like sheep.

Other Breeds
Most breeds of rabbits that are not dwarf can be used for meat and the above are just “the best” or really, the most popular. Many people who raise rabbits of almost any breed frequently put their culls in the stewpot. Some people swear by these less popular breeds for meat, but time and experience have shown that to be the exception, not the rule. The nice thing about rabbits though is they are almost all thrifty animals that breed like, well, rabbits. Within a short time examining rabbit breeds you will find yourself capable of telling a rabbit that is just not worth the time to bother raising and butchering. In general, rabbits that are skinny, small or thick boned are bad choices. It is quite obvious that Holland Lops  have too much bone, Himalayans are TOO long and low, and Petite Britannicas are just too skinny and small. There are many other breeds out there that are all average to poor production rabbits but have become a favorite for individuals for various reasons. If you choose a breed not on the list for a preference of those traits, don’t feel like you made a bad choice. It is hard to go wrong with rabbits!

Mixed Breeds and Hybrids
Mutt rabbits are an excellent choice for production. Some mixes such as the Altex have grown in extreme popularity, are used commercially, and are favorable for their extraordinary hybrid vigor. Mixes can be very healthy, high production and beautiful rabbits that can shock you with their usefulness. Sometimes they can carry on bad traits as well. I find my Rex X NZW mixes to be very healthy, extremely fast growing rabbits that are all around quality production animals… But their dressage ratio suffers from the thick skin and coat that the Rex genes provide. That, however, can be a boon for tanning the hides. Many people mix Giant breeds into their lines for increased size, often crossing with a light boned commercial breed to reduce the impact of the heavy Giant bones. Cross bred rabbits often exhibit hybrid vigor and grow faster, healthier, which is why crossing NZW and Californian rabbit is extremely popular. Mixing rabbit breeds can be great for the back yard meat farmer that is not concerned with show. Mixed breed rabbit cannot be shown of course.

In Conclusion…
If there is one thing to take away from this, it is that rabbit breeds are diverse and flexible, offering a huge variety of choices and that everyone has their favorites! There are few right or wrong choices for the breed you select, although there are some that are generally better and some that are distinctly worse. It is important to choose the rabbit that suits your conditions as well as your fancy! Rabbits are an extremely enjoyable and sustainable hobby, and I encourage you to look into this extremely healthy food source for your own homestead!